Escape From Fort Bravo

Escape From Fort Bravo (1953) involves the escape of Confederate prisoners from a Union stockade in the Arizona Territory during the Civil War. As the film begins, Union Captain Roper (William Holden) leads Bailey (John Lupton), an escaped prisoner, back to Fort Bravo—making him walk across the Arizona desert at the end of a rope while Roper rides on horseback. The other prisoners—and even Roper’s commander—feel that Roper’s treatment of Bailey is cruel, but Roper believes that he needs to discourage the other Confederates from escaping, especially as the fort is under threat from a vicious band of Mescalero Indians. Roper and his men track down a group of missing supply wagons only to find the drivers killed by the Mescaleros, their bodies staked to anthills.

The soldiers then rescue a covered wagon under attack from the Indians. One of the wagon’s passengers is beautiful Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker), who is traveling to the fort to attend the wedding of the commander’s daughter, Alice (Polly Bergen), to one of Roper’s men, Beecher (Richard Anderson). The seemingly stone-hearted Roper develops an apparently mutual attraction with Carla, not realizing that she is the fiancée of Marsh (John Forsythe), a Confederate prisoner, and is ingratiating herself with Roper to aid Marsh’s escape. With the help of a Southern sympathizer, Carla and Marsh escape from the fort after Alice’s wedding, along with Bailey and two other prisoners, Campbell (William Demarest) and Cabot (William Campbell).

Roper and Beecher track down the escapees but, heading back to the fort, the group is attacked by the Mescaleros and pinned down. Bailey escapes on the only surviving horse, apparently to save himself. After Campbell and Cabot are killed and Marsh and Beecher seriously wounded, Roper leaves the hiding place to draw the Mescaleros’ fire in a gallant act of self-sacrifice. As he is felled by bullets, the cavalry comes to the rescue, summoned by Bailey. With Marsh dead, Carla is free to love the wounded but still living Roper.

Escape From Fort Bravo began as a screenplay titled Rope’s End, a collaboration between Philip Rock and Michael Pate. While Rock only boasted a few subsequent screenwriting credits, including John Frankenheimer’s failed WWII fantasy-comedy The Extraordinary Seaman and the 1961 sci-fi thriller Most Dangerous Man Alive (for which he and Pate wrote the original story), Pate had a remarkably varied career in film and television spanning across five decades, mostly as an actor, with roles encompassing everything from Flavius in Joseph L. Mankeiwicz’s Julius Caesar to the vampire gunslinger in Universal’s horror western Curse of the Undead. Ironically, considering Fort Bravo’s use of the Mescaleros as undifferentiated villains, Pate himself played a variety of Indian roles throughout his career—most significantly as the villainous Sierra Charriba in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, whose storyline of Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners teaming up to battle Indians makes it a clear successor to Fort Bravo. In his later career, Pate worked largely in his native Australia: among his behind-the-camera credits were the screenplay and direction of the 1979 romantic drama Tim, starring Piper Laurie and Mel Gibson.

Rock and Pate’s script was rewritten by Frank Fenton, a prolific screenwriter of the 1940s and ’50s whose other western credits included The Wild North and Ride, Vaquero! Fort Bravo director John Sturges began his career making B-movies at Columbia in the 1940s, but by the ’50s he had moved on to regular work at M-G-M and productions of increasingly larger scale. Fort Bravo was shot on location in Gallup, New Mexico, and at the Death Valley National Monument in California. Although it was briefly announced as a 3-D project, it was ultimately shot in 2-D in the new Ansco color process pioneered on The Wild North. (While several reviews at the time commented on the film’s “widescreen” cinematography, it was actually filmed in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which is even narrower than today’s non-anamorphic films.) Over the course of the production, the title changed from Rope’s End to simply Fort Bravo and finally to Escape From Fort Bravo, although, strangely, the film’s final title card lists the film as just Fort Bravo. (Equally strange, the synopsis in the film’s press notes has Carla fleeing for help in the finale instead of Bailey.)

William Holden was in the midst of a remarkable hit streak when he played Roper in Fort Bravo, with The Moon Is Blue and his Oscar-winning performance in Stalag 17 released the same year. His dependable charisma and sardonic edge were among Fort Bravo’s strongest elements, although Holden is such a confident star that it is almost hard to believe his character falling for Carla’s wiles. In addition to Holden and female lead Eleanor Parker (a popular actress of the time who is less remembered today for her three Oscar-nominated performances than for her role as the Baroness in The Sound of Music) the cast is dominated by faces who would later become more familiar on television, including John Forsythe, Richard Anderson (who would appear in films such as Paths of Glory and Seconds but is most often remembered today as Oscar Goldman on The Six Million Dollar Man) and William Demarest (a member of the Preston Sturges stock company who became a household face as Uncle Charlie on My Three Sons).

While the other films in this collection featured scripts that took pains to portray their Indian characters as sympathetic figures perpetually misunderstood and mistreated by white settlers, Escape From Fort Bravo takes the opposite tack, with the Mescaleros serving only as a vicious, anonymous menace that brings the white characters, Union and Confederate alike, together against a common Indian enemy. Overall, Escape From Fort Bravo may be a standard if enjoyable western adventure, but it is the nameless Indians who provide the film its biggest thrills. The climactic battle serves as the story’s highlight, with the Mescalero warriors pinning the good guys in a ravine and circling their location with spears before launching a long-distance arrow attack with the precision of modern artillery. This sequence earned the most favorable attention from reviewers at the time of the film’s release, and is the part of the film where Sturges, who seven years later would helm the classic western The Magnificent Seven, was really able to show his stuff. Overall, Sturges made striking use of small human figures amid the large, bleak landscape, and though the several night scenes filmed on soundstages contrast somewhat jarringly with the location work, the large sets with their massive cycloramas have their own Golden Age Hollywood beauty.

Jeff Alexander had worked in features mostly as a vocal arranger on such projects as Singin’ in the Rain and On the Riviera before Escape From Fort Bravo, which is one of his first credited feature scores. Thus it is fitting that his score should be dominated by two songs. The first of these, “Yellow Stripes,” serves as the film’s main theme and is used to represent the heroic Union officers at Fort Bravo. It was written not by Alexander but by Stan Jones, a park ranger-turned-actor/songwriter whose most famous composition is the Western classic “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” John Ford’s 1950 Rio Grande had previously featured “Yellow Stripes” and other Jones songs—as well as Jones himself in a small acting role. (Jones also wrote the Union cavalry march in The Horse Soldiers, “I Left My Love,” featured on FSM’s first westerns collection.) Fort Bravo’s main title features a vocal version of “Yellow Stripes,” although Alexander also recorded an earlier version that employs the song less prominently. Jones’s tune receives an especially rousing version in “Roper’s Lopers,” as Roper and his men ride out of the fort, and there are also effective, pensive renditions for scenes of the heroes riding into danger.

The other principal song, “Soothe My Lonely Heart,” featured music and lyrics by Alexander, and the sheet music was released commercially to tie in with the film. The theme is introduced in an early scene in which Marsh consoles Bailey, who has just been returned to the fort at rope’s end, and is first used to represent the plight of the Confederate soldiers, imprisoned far from home. This is reinforced when one of the prisoners sings the song on screen (dubbed by Bill Lee), but over the course of the story the melody also becomes associated with the growing attraction between Roper and Carla, such as when he forces a kiss on her. Alexander also introduces another romantic theme during this sequence, as Roper gives Carla a scenic tour of the desert landscape, but for the film’s climax “Soothe” is again used for the Roper–Carla relationship, as well as for the moment when Roper acknowledges Bailey’s heroism.

Despite the film’s darker underpinnings (the uneasy truce between opposing forces, Carla’s deceitful pursuit of Roper), Alexander’s music tends to emphasize its grander, more scenic values, and his cues feature such jokey titles as “Ants in Their Pants,” “Sweet Sioux” and “White Cliffs of Roper.” Besides the Union soldiers (characterized by “Yellow Stripes”) and the Confederate prisoners (associated with “Soothe My Lonely Heart” and the occasional interpolation of “Dixie”), the third main force in the film’s narrative is the Mescalero Indians. Although Alexander recorded a few Indian-inflected cues, the final score is largely devoid of Indian elements, and the filmmakers made the unusually effective choice of leaving several of the scenes with the Indians unscored. The virtual silence of the shots of the Mescaleros stalking our heroes adds greatly to the suspense, and the climactic arrow attack benefits greatly from the reliance on visuals and sound effects, even though Alexander’s action material for the earlier chase scene is also rousingly effective. — 

This premiere release of Jeff Alexander’s score to Escape From Fort Bravo is, like The Last Hunt, taken from the original 35mm three-track scoring masters. Unfortunately a few cues (such as “Mescaleros Chase,” track 10) suffered damage over the years—the sensation of the music oscillating from speaker to speaker (“image shift”) is actually caused by the right channel dropping out. Every effort has been made to minimize this and other issues.

1. Main Title and Foreword
A joyous, martial setting of Stan Jones’s “Yellow Stripes” plays through the opening credit sequence as a band of Union soldiers ride out of Fort Bravo into the Arizona desert—the male chorus track is actually drawn from an unused version of “Roper’s Lopers” (track 14). After the titles conclude, a conflicted minor-mode setting of the tune lumbers forward for Captain Roper (William Holden) forcing escaped prisoner Bailey (John Lupton) to walk back to the fort while tied to Roper’s horse. A foreword appears on screen, telling of the hatred between the fort’s Union soldiers and the captive Confederates, as well as the threat posed by the Mescalero Indians, after which the theme continues to unfold over its wandering bass line. Decorated with chattering brass fanfares, it plays through Roper’s arrival at the fort with his prisoner.
2. Marsh and Bailey
Confederate Capt. Marsh (John Forsythe) is granted permission to visit Bailey in the fort’s hospital. Solemn strings and woodwinds play as Bailey apologizes to his captain for trying to escape on his own. Alexander introduces his aching “Soothe My Lonely Heart” theme when Bailey describes his hometown in Virginia, with the melody reaching a delicate conclusion as Marsh promises to get the soldier home.
3. Roper’s Lopers
“Yellow Stripes” undergoes a series of increasingly triumphant readings for Roper leading a group of Union soldiers into the desert to search for missing supply wagons. The theme peters out with uncertainty as the men see the wagons burning in the distance.
Ants in Their Pants
The soldiers ride toward the destroyed wagons and an angry rendition of “Yellow Stripes” is set among unsettling strings and Indian tom-toms that represent the Mescaleros. A portentous tritone-laden passage sounds as the soldiers arrive at the wagons and wonder where their drivers are; the score responds with a nervous trill that builds to the revelation of the dead drivers staked to anthills. A mournful line introduced on clarinet plays as Lt. Beecher (Richard Anderson) decries the Indians’ methods to Roper.
4. Sweet Sioux
After the soldiers give the drivers a proper burial, they are ambushed by the Mescaleros. As the Indians encircle the troopers on horseback and assail them with arrows, the score launches a relentless attack cue: an obsessive figure for percussion and low-end piano trades off with darting lines for strings and woodwinds as well as dire brass fanfares. During the cue’s second half, the low-end figure becomes a driving ostinato that bolsters twitching woodwinds and brass as the soldiers shoot down their foes; the remaining Mescaleros eventually retreat, and with them their aggressive material.
5. Troop Droops
A warm setting of “Yellow Stripes” underscores the soldiers traveling to Rock Springs, with Roper carrying a wounded Beecher on his horse. Night falls and the men set up camp at the springs; the soothing tune continues as Roper discusses the preceding Indian attack with a subordinate, Chavez (Alex Montoya). The captain notes the disparity between the violence and their beautiful country surroundings, but their moment is interrupted by distant sounds of commotion.
The Mescaleros chase after a covered wagon carrying Carla (Eleanor Parker); in the finished film, Alexander’s bustling cue for this sequence is replaced with a tracked version of “Sweet Sioux.” As written, the chase is scored with an exclamatory three-note motive that is answered by whimsical, frantic activity; this material trades off with a marauding line for horns as well as biting syncopated material for winds and percussion. The troopers ride out and fend off the Indians, with the wagon arriving safely at the soldiers’ camp.
6. Roper and Carla
Roper greets Carla and she explains that she is on her way to Fort Bravo to attend the wedding of a friend, Alice (Polly Bergen). Sensitive strings and woodwinds hint at the forthcoming romance between Carla and the captain as she changes the dressing on Beecher’s wound.
To the Fort
A yearning, romantic melody for horns and imitative strings is introduced after a transition to the following day with the Union soldiers arriving at Fort Bravo with Carla.
7. Soothe My Lonely Heart
At night, flirtatious Carla escorts Roper to his room and the couple passes by the Confederate prisoners who are gathered outside. Two of the rebels perform a haunting arrangement of “Soothe My Lonely Heart” for voice, guitar and harmonica while a distracted Marsh watches his fiancée walk with Roper. (The vocal here is performed by prominent Hollywood dubbing singer Bill Lee.) After Carla and Roper arrive outside the captain’s quarters the underscore adopts the tune as a love theme for strings and low-register flute. Carla continues to make advances toward Roper and he agrees to escort her to a dance the following night.
8. Off to Watson’s
The score introduces lush, pastoral material for a brief transitional scene of Roper accompanying Carla and Alice to town. The women intend to buy a wedding gown for Alice, but Carla also sets the rebels’ plan for escape into motion, aided by a shopkeeper—a Southern sympathizer named Watson (Howard McNear).
White Cliffs of Roper
The pastoral material of “Off to Watson’s” is developed into a soaring theme for Roper’s mountainside date with Carla. After the melody is introduced for the couple riding out of Fort Bravo, the writing takes on a delicate, troubled tone for rebel prisoner Campbell (William Demarest) noting to Capt. Marsh that Roper and Carla have become “thick”—Marsh is naturally not pleased, but he trusts his girl. The scene transitions to the couple traveling through the desert and the new theme is given a bold treatment on horns and strings as they reach the cliffs, capturing a sense of freedom outside the fort as well as the majesty of the scenery. Carla resists Roper’s initial advances but once he forces a kiss on her and professes his feelings she gives in, to a reprisal of “Soothe My Lonely Heart” over chromatic accompaniment.
9. Search Begins
After Alice’s wedding, Roper proposes to Carla, who panics when she realizes that she has fallen in love with the captain. Carla deviates from the plan and escapes from Fort Bravo in Watson’s wagon with Marsh and a small band of rebels. When the escape is discovered the next day, Roper is assigned to track down the fugitives and bring them in. The captain and his troopers ride out of the fort to a stern, contrapuntal rendition of “Yellow Stripes.”
Is This Trip Necessary
Roper finds the escaped Bailey at a saloon in town; the Union soldiers continue to search the desert with their prisoner in tow, to accelerated versions of the “Yellow Stripes” development from “Search Begins.”
10. Mescalero Chase
Roper and his men capture Carla and the other Confederates but they are tracked by the Mescaleros as they journey back to the fort. Once the heroes become aware of the Indians’ presence, the Mescaleros pursue them through mountainous terrain accompanied by a propulsive 9/8 action cue, a musical approach similar to the previous attacks. When Bailey falls off his horse, the group stops to help him; as they make their stand against the Mescaleros, the score responds with desperate brass developments of the “White Cliffs of Roper” theme. The soldiers take cover behind a ridge and the unruly cue dies down as the Indians race toward them, killing Chavez.
11. Dawn and Decision
The Mescaleros position themselves on a nearby mountain and pin down the soldiers; Bailey manages to escape on the sole remaining horse but Campbell and Cabot are killed.
Creepy woodwinds and high strings signal the arrival of dawn, and Roper decides that his only chance of saving Carla, Marsh and Beecher is to convince the Indians that they are already dead by marching out into the open and sacrificing himself. As he explains his plan to the remaining Confederates and covers them with dirt, the score offers a doomed passacaglia development of “Soothe My Lonely Heart,” with a pure version of the melody and its chromatic accompaniment sounding when he and Carla embrace.
Alexander adapted this cue into his composition “Brown” for the 1956 Capitol Records concept album Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color.
12. Roper Shot
Roper walks toward the mountain, facing certain death. The Mescaleros shoot him and as Carla reacts to this the score enters with a dire, pentatonic “Indian” line for strings and suspenseful brass. The captain pulls himself from the ground and continues toward the Indians, with a distant Cavalry bugle call sounding—it is unclear whether its usage is meant to be part of the underscore (foreshadowing the soon-to-arrive Union soldiers) or if the tune is actually being performed by one of the soldiers off screen. The Indians reveal themselves on horseback, swarming around the wounded Roper, and the score builds tension with punishing brass.
Troopers Arrive
“Yellow Stripes” triumphs over the aggressive Indian material as Bailey shows up with the Union soldiers in the nick of time. As the Mescaleros are chased off, Carla runs out to cradle Roper in her arms, the score acknowledging her concern and the dissipating action with unwinding strings and woodwinds. “Soothe My Lonely Heart” is briefly quoted for Roper complimenting Bailey, who wanders over to the fatally wounded Marsh. A fateful reading of “Dixie” is traded between winds as Marsh acknowledges Bailey’s heroism with a warm glance before dying.
End Title
“Yellow Stripes” builds to a triumphant, brassy conclusion for the soldiers traveling back to the fort.
End Cast
The end titles play over reprised footage of the film’s key players. “Yellow Stripes” receives a confident arrangement for male chorus with jaunty brass.

Alternate Score

Escape From Fort Bravo was evidently finished, screened to mixed results, and then reworked and rescored to the point where many cues exist in two or more versions. Jeff Alexander’s recordings for the film stretch from March 19, 1953 (when he recorded Bill Lee’s vocals of “Soothe My Lonely Heart”) to early fall of that year—his initial orchestral recording sessions were on July 23, 29, 30, August 3 and 4, then he returned on September 17 to re-record virtually the entire score (tracks 1–12, discussed above). There is only one substantial conceptual difference between the original and rescored versions, which is that Alexander initially created ambient cues for the offscreen threat of the Mescaleros featuring exotic percussion and eerie orchestral overlays (recorded separately), but for the rescored film either this approach was creatively abandoned or there was not time to execute it again.

13. Main Title (original version)
The first version of the “Main Title” omits the cheery vocal rendition of “Yellow Stripes,” segueing from a portentous opening to the dirge-like music for Roper returning Bailey to the prison—with a brief, triumphant statement of the “Yellow Stripes” theme possibly intended for the first shot of the Union fort.
14. Roper’s Lopers (vocal version)
An unused version of track 3 features the “Yellow Stripes” theme sung by male chorus over exuberant orchestrations. (This is, in fact, the vocal track that was repurposed for the “Main Title” of the finished film.)
15. Roper’s Lopers (original version)
A second early version of “Roper’s Lopers” is essentially the instrumental arrangement from track 14, without the chorus.
Ants in Their Pants (original version)
This is the first example of Alexander’s attempt to use exotic percussion and eerie instrumental overlays (discarded for the finished film) to evoke the offscreen threat of the Mescaleros; it was intended to be heard as Roper and his men find the remains of the fort’s lost supply wagons. (See track 3; in the finished film version, a mere hint of the percussion can be heard at the start of the cue.) This particular selection has been reconstructed using the stereo percussion from the studio elements and a monaural acetate of the orchestral overlay, as that particular studio element was damaged beyond use.
16. Homeward Bound/Mescaleros
These two short cues, having no direct counterpart in the score to the finished film, feature more of the ambient percussion for the Mescalero threat.
17. Troop Droops (original version)/Stagecoach
The original version of track 5 leans much less heavily on “Yellow Stripes,” instead introducing the ascending motive that will become the romantic theme in “White Cliffs of Roper.” “Stagecoach” is the same recording heard in track 5.
18. Search Begins (original version)
An early version of disc 3, track 9 features urgent, dramatic strains rather than the questing statement of “Yellow Stripes” from the finished film.
19. Indians Sighted/Mescalero Chase (original version)
“Indians Sighted” is another percussion-based cue with no counterpart in the score to the finished film. “Mescalero Chase” is an early version of track 10, featuring the same concept but differences in musical content—for example, a passage for percussion and piccolo is unique to this track.
20. Dawn/Decision
This track is substantially the same as track 11; in the film’s original configuration, however, the cue was recorded in two parts to surround a reel change.
21. Roper Shot/Troopers Arrive/End Title/End Cast
(original versions) This is the original configuration of the film’s climactic music. “Roper Shot” is completely different from the finished film version (track 12), featuring the ethnic percussion with overlays as in other Mescalero cues. “Troopers Arrive” is substantially the same music as in track 12, but an earlier recording with different timings. Half of the “End Title” is the same recording as in track 12, the other half different (for timing purposes), while the “End Cast” is the same recording in both tracks.

Source Music

Escape From Fort Bravo also included various source music cues for dance sequences related to the wedding celebration midway through the story. Most of these instrumental pieces are not included here, but the following three tracks present some noteworthy vocals recorded for the film.

22. Soothe My Lonely Heart
Bill Lee recorded this full-length version of “Soothe My Lonely Heart,” marked in the scoring paperwork as “publisher’s version.” In fact several versions were recorded, one of which may be the rendition released on an MGM Records 45rpm single.
23. Shenandoah
This is a Bill Lee performance of the traditional “Shenandoah,” not heard in the finished film, but included on the flip side of the “Soothe My Lonely Heart” single.
24. Battle of Chanc’llerville/Rebels’ Rant
These two Civil War-era songs (unused in the film) are presented here for one reason only: they were sung a cappella by Jeff Alexander himself as part of the recording sessions. —